Think of Thérèse Raquin, the Émile Zola novel that is the inspiration for In Secret, as the original film noir. It has an illicit love affair, a murder and the guilt and fear of discovery that comes with it.
Filmmaker Charlie Stratton, working from Neal Bell's stage adaptation of the book, delivers a moody, melodramatic and somewhat overwrought version of the tale, sort of The Postman Always Rings Twice set in 19th-century Paris. It benefits from brooding performances by the leads and another fierce turn by Jessica Lange in an unpleasant supporting role.
Elizabeth Olsen is Thérèse Raquin, a tragically illegitimate child whose father leaves her with distant relatives after her mother dies.
"Illegitimates have been dealt an unlucky hand," Madame Raquin (Lange) purrs. She then sets out to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thérèse is forlorn and unloved in the present, and Madame has Thérèse's future planned in ways that won't change that. Thérèse will marry Madame's pampered son Camille (Tom Felton, Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies), a sickly lad who has grown up with Thérèse, more of a coughing brother than a potential lover.
Never miss a local story.
They move from the country to Paris, and that's where Camille re-connects with childhood pal Laurent (Oscar Isaac of Inside Llewyn Davis), a smoldering rake of an artist who awakens the woman in Thérèse.
"Save me," she pleads to him. And he does. Often.
As clueless Camille frets, "I don't know how to make Thérèse happy," to his "friend," Laurent is making her happy every day over lunch.
As the lovers get comfortable keeping their secret, even in the weekly dominoes parties that Madame throws with family and friends, the idea comes to them that Camille is just in the way. They should kill him. Perhaps they get the idea from the police inspector (the amusing Matt Lucas of TV's Little Britain).
"There is nothing but murder and lust," Inspector Olivier opines after relating the details of yet another grisly murder investigation in 1860s Paris.
"People have accidents every day," the lovers realize.
In Secret is a genuine bodice ripper of a thriller, with the requisite heavy breathing that comes after that bodice is ripped. The sex isn't explicit, but Olsen and Isaac suggest the heat that gives this doomed affair its momentum. Olsen's version of Thérèse is a lovelorn Madame Bovary who decides to take things further than Flaubert's Emma Bovary ever would.
Lange makes a delicious, fearsome hysteric, and Felton is properly foppish and tubercular as Camille. Stratton, who had directed a stage production of this story, shifts our sympathies from Thérèse to Camille to Madame Raquin over the course of the tale.
Unfortunately, there's no way to back-date this original noir to keep us from seeing where it's going. We've seen too many variations of this story. The overwrought 19th-century melodramatic conventions creak like the springs and joints of a worn-out stagecoach.
As what happened In Secret unravels in the harsh light of day, some of what we're supposed to feel is missing because we saw it coming much too soon.